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A Plea for Good Panini

I’ve just returned from ten days in Italy and reentry is a little rough. We’re taking the first couple days slowly and easing the longing for that beautiful place by eating the foods we had there.

Cappuccino is required – and I can simulate a decent cup with my stovetop espresso pot and a great little device that makes amazingly terrific foam although you’d never believe it looking at the thing. It’s a small rechargeable wand with a circular whisk at the end (here’s a link to it But I digress.
What I really want to talk about is the state of our cafes.
After eating proper meals in about 15 restaurants in Rome and Venice I can happily — and with great respect — report that some of our South Shore restaurants are turning out fare as good as many Italian eateries.
But our cafés are another story.
What cafes you may ask. Well. Starbucks mainly and Thank God for them (corporate giant that they are and all that) or we’d have almost nowhere to serve as the public meeting places that make Italian life so sweet.
Every city and tiny village I’ve visited in about 10 trips to that country has its cafes. They’re called bars or cafes and they serve delicious espresso drinks as well as alcohol, sodas, and juices from early morning until late night. In glasses and porcelain cups they serve them. You can even order sparkling mineral water by the glass – for 80 cents or so – you don’t have to buy a whole plastic bottle of it. They all also serve some food (God forbid you should go hungry for a minute in Italy) and depending on the place, your choices always include a platter of homemade sandwiches or half sandwiches that go for a couple-few bucks.
You look at the selection through a glass case and get your choice served to you on a thin napkin. They’re not required by local health departments or the American hysteria for hyper-packaging to individually wrap everything. So, you can stop in just about anywhere any time of day and grab a good protein-packed snack for small money. And you can do it without adding to the continent of plastic that’s sadly floating in the Pacific somewhere.
And here we are, the United Bloody Fabulous States of America, and the majority of our café options for on-the-go nourishment are packed in solid plastic boxes somewhere far away, cost about $6, and taste like airplane food.
Just somebody, hear my plea: Can you make some good simple sandwiches – with some terrific fresh bread and a slice or two of protein — and sell them from a platter? Do we really have to package simple snacks so heavily? (Can we afford to?)
The photos here are from an unusually great selection of sandwiches from Alda Menoghi’s fabulous family-run eatery Pietro Panizzolo Osteria Da Carla in Venice. (Fyi — panini is the Italian word for sandwiches – plural – any sandwichs, grilled or not. The singular is panino.) I admit, Menoghi’s panini are exceptional, but shoot, why not? The majority of panini in even a backwater Italian bar are cheaper and better than what we have here. They can be as simple as a good roll with procuitto; cheese and arugula on a ciabatta; tuna fish on fresh bread with slices of hard-boiled egg on top; ham and cheese.
Or they can be fancier like those pictured here. Again, why not? Why can’t we people of this the most magnificent country create a more beautiful daily experience of life for ourselves? We need meeting places to build our communities, we need simple pleasures in everyday life, and we don’t need to fear the homemade and simple or be a slave to plastic. We have enough health codes and town departments in place to protect ourselves.
(To be fair, I know Brewed Awakenings and Gunther Tooties — the only two family-run cafes in these parts that I can think of — offer hot drinks and sandwiches on porcelain. But what about take-away?)
So how about it Starbucks? Can you make a change? Why can’t we have simple, homemade sandwiches like the ones pictured here? Why can’t you organize something on the local level and give some good home cooks or caterers a job?
For now, I’m making my own. Open-faced tuna with arugula, cherry tomatoes and olives on top; buffalo mozzarella, basil, and tomato with a drizzle of olive oil. Applegate Farms soppressata and bread — period.
You don’t have to be a great cook to make a wonderful sandwich – anyone with construction skills can do it, it’s an assembly job. All you need are good fresh ingredients.
Come on somebody, help me out.